Tag Archives: postcards

Benjamin J. Falk, photographer and master of light

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Marie Jansen in the "Merry Monarch," 1890. Museum of the City of New York. 86.184.73

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Marie Jansen in the “Merry Monarch,” 1890. Museum of the City of New York. 86.184.73

It’s 1881. You’re an actor in the latest smash-hit sensation. Wanting to gain a little publicity for yourself, the show, and a potential national tour, the producers send you off to get your very own cabinet card portrait.  The great photographer Napoleon Sarony can’t immediately fit you in, but you’ve heard about a studio down on Broadway and 22nd Street where this guy named Falk can deliver. He’s got the backdrops and props for action shots, he creates great light using the latest in new-fangled electricity, and he’s not afraid to show a little leg.

Benjamin J. Falk was born October 14, 1853.  A life-long New Yorker, he studied photography at the College of the City of New York, graduating in 1872.  While still in school, Falk worked for the photographer George Rockwood, but by 1877 had set up his own studio on 14th Street.  (For a more complete history of Falk visit David S. Sheilds’s excellent website Broadway Photographs from which much of the biographical information in this post comes.)

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Gertie Homan, 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 39.317.65.

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Gertie Homan, 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 39.317.65.

The center of New York City theatrical life in 1877 was Madison Square. Falk moved his studio to 949 Broadway (at 22nd Street) in 1881 to be closer to the action and his clientele. From there he steadily built his reputation as an insightful portraitist of theatrical characters. The image of child actress Gertie Homan on the left is from the play Editha’s Burglar.  Adapted from the beloved book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the play tells the story of a sensitive little girl who convinces a burglar to take her own possessions over those of her parents. Falk perfectly captures the innocence and energy of little Editha. The photograph also shows off his effective use of lighting.

Almost from the beginning, Falk’s Broadway studio featured electric arc lights. In 1883 he took his lights to Madison Square Theatre to capture a scene from A Russian Honeymoon, then running at the theatre. The resulting images were the first to capture a full theatrical production scene in  a New York playhouse.

Museum of the City of New York. 38.294.47.

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Scene from “A Russian Honeymoon” at the Madison Square Theatre, N.Y., 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 38.294.47.

Falk eventually ceded the work of stage photography to the Byron Company studio, but he continued to create innovative and beautiful portraits such as the one below of Ida Mülle from the opera Orpheus and Eurydice.

Museum of the City of New York. 49.330.20.

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Ida Mülle, as “Cupid,” ca. 1884. Museum of the City of New York. 49.330.20.

Museum of the City of New York. 50.19.63.

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Geraldine Ulmar as Yum Yum, 1886. Museum of the City of New York. 50.19.63.

For the Gilbert and Sullivan blockbuster operetta The Mikado, Falk positioned the main love interest, Yum Yum, inside one of her songs. Performed at the beginning of the second act, Yum Yum compares herself to the sun and moon.

“Ah, pray make no mistake,
We are not shy;
We’re very wide awake,
The moon and I!”

Not only is it a stunning photograph, but it calls to my mind images from French filmmaker Georges Méliès’s  Le Voyages dans le Lune.  Méliès’s groundbreaking work was made 16 years after this cabinet card fell into circulation.

Changes in the city skyline eventually forced Falk out of his Broadway location. The construction of more and taller buildings blocked out much of the light Falk needed.  (The site of the Falk’s Broadway studio is currently occupied by the Flatiron Building.)  In the early 1890s he moved to 24th Street just off Madison Square Park, affording better access to the light his work required.

Postcard. 5th Ave Hotel & Madison Square N.Y., ca. 1898. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.3264.

Postcard. 5th Ave Hotel & Madison Square N.Y., ca. 1898. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.3264.

From the 24th Street studio Falk continued capturing theatrical characters such as the one below from The Devil’s Deputy.  In the show, comedic actor Francis Wilson plays a country inn-keeper and bridegroom who gets caught up in the switch-a-roo schemes of an actor on the run.

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Frances Wilson, 1894. Museum of the City of New York. 30.15.3.

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Frances Wilson, 1894. Museum of the City of New York. 30.15.3.

Ever chasing the light, Falk moved again in 1900, this time to the roof-top solarium of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Waldorf Astoria, ca. 1901. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.6762.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Waldorf Astoria, ca. 1901. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.6762.

Making use of natural light during the day, Falk also maintained an interior studio for moodier portraits, completely outfitted with electric lights using his own set-ups complete with flash and umbrellas.

Museum of the City of New York. 41.50.715.

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). [Bertha Galland as Isoult in “The Forest Lovers”.] 1901-1902. Museum of the City of New York. 41.50.715.

Falk continued theatrical portraiture, but the businessman in him took advantage of the hotel’s social scene. He kept the studio open late for any of the more wealthy theatre-goers wishing to have their first night evening attire captured forever on film.

Byron Company, Uncle Joe Byron, Pirie MacDonald, Colonel Marceau, Pop Core, Ben Falk-New York, 1920. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.4.16.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Uncle Joe Byron, Pirie MacDonald, Colonel Marceau, Pop Core, Ben Falk-New York, 1920. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.4.16.

The man himself appears above (far right, one arm holding the camera, in what might be the world’s first selfie) with fellow photographers.  In addition to begin highly regarded as a portrait photographer, Falk was respected by his colleagues for his work to found the Photographers’ Copyright League protecting the intellectual property rights of photographers. When Falk passed away on March 19, 1925, he left a legacy of technological and artistic innovation and a simply beautiful body of work.

The Falk photographs featured in this blog are brought to you by the Museum’s Theatrical production digitization project supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Using the Museum’s Collections to Teach Photography

The Photography Collection at the Museum of the City of New York is an incredible resource for anyone interested in photography, architecture, social history, New York City, and any number of other topics. Over 300,000 prints and negatives make up the collection, and thousands of these images have been digitized and can be seen on our online Collections Portal. The Museum’s collection contextualizes the present within the larger picture of New York City’s past, creating a rich visual database that reflects the vastness of our metropolis and its complicated history. Children as well as adults can use this visual database to explore and interpret the past and draw inspiration in their own lives. The City Museum offers educators classroom guides to the collection, and our new photography classes put cameras into the hands of young people–inviting them to expand their own vision of the city.

Isabelle Abel, Age 11, Faces and Feelings, Rockefeller Center, 2014.

Isabelle Abel, Age 11, Faces and Feelings, Rockefeller Center, 2014.

Using the collection, students learn that photography is a visual language that can be investigated and discussed to make new connections and discoveries about the world around them. Students begin to see that their daily interactions with photography through cell phone pics, selfies, and social media only scratch the surface of the medium’s potential. Included here are sample images taken by elementary-age City Museum photographers who explored this potential by photographing the City’s built environment and its people alongside some of the images from our collection from which they took inspiration.

 Ratcliffe. Produced by Foto Seal Co., Looking South from Observation Roof of R.C.A. Building, ca. 1955. Museum of the City of New York, F2011.33.1151.

Ratcliffe. Produced by Foto Seal Co., Looking South from Observation Roof of R.C.A. Building, ca. 1955. Museum of the City of New York, F2011.33.1151.

Caroline Cole, Age 9, My Hometown, Top of the Rock, 2014.

Caroline Cole, Age 9, My Hometown, Top of the Rock, 2014.

Here a student used re-photography to create a new image of the skyline inspired by a 1930s postcard, comparing and contrasting the past and the present. The class discussed how postcards mailed all over the world contribute to the identity of a city. The Postcard Collection includes over 5,500 images dating back from the late 19th century through the present.

Maria Cerini, Tiny Skis, 2014.

Maria Cerini, Age 10, Tiny Skis, 2014.

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine. Rosemary Williams, Show Girl, 1949. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.12302.9A-F.

Stanley Kubrick. Rosemary Williams, Show Girl, 1949. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.12302.9A-F.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Students also staged environmental and studio portraits, collaborating with their subject to tell a story and express a range of emotions. Using contact sheets such as this one by Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine, they learned that it takes many shots to get the perfect picture.

Samuel H. Gottscho, New York City views. RCA Building floodlighted, 1933. Museum of the City of New York, 88.1.2.2267.

Samuel H. Gottscho, New York City views. RCA Building floodlighted, 1933. Museum of the City of New York, 88.1.2.2267.

Marin Wells, Age 9, Entering the G.E. Building, Rockefeller Center, 2014.

Marin Wells, Age 9, Entering the G.E. Building, Rockefeller Center, 2014.

By using close-ups, zooming out, and shooting from ‘bird’s-eye’ and ‘worm’s-eye’ views students saw a single subject transformed through a range of perspectives, learning the impact point-of-view can have on a subject. Here the student displays how impressive a landmark can be made by shooting it from below.

I Spy Exhibition

I Spy NY Exhibition, Museum of the City of New York

The City Museum’s Frederick A.O. Schwarz Children’s Center is now hosting an ongoing exhibition of youth photography. Students worked with museum professionals to curate, edit, mat, frame, and label their pieces.

Educators can download guides to the collections portal. Over 165,000 images can be used to inspire stimulating conversations about photography.

Exciting new photography classes (cameras provided) include:
Field Trip- Capturing the City Through the Camera for Grades 5-8
I Spy New York: Capturing the City Through the Camera for Grades 2-3
Portrait of a City: Photographing Landmarks for Grades 9-12

The digital team reflects on Valentine’s Day

We here in the digital lab have conflicted feelings about today’s holiday.  So we’ve pulled images from our collection that express a variety of  viewpoints about romance and Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s cards in the mid-19th century and Stanley Kubrick’s  images of teenagers canoodling on a fire escape  in the 1940’s show that New York is the place to be in love. (But just in case you don’t agree with that last sentence, we have images for you too.)

Our collection of vintage Valentine’s Day cards  runs the gamut from the sweetly violent….

Comic Valentine card. ca. 1920. Museum of the City of New York. 03.49.1

to the quad-lingual (what a lucky girl Miss Louise Horn was)…..

Valentine: Eternal Love. 1847. Museum of the City of New York. 31.18.19.

to the faintly seductive.

Greeting card. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 38.8.262.

Moving beyond greeting cards to real people,  here are some more  images of love, from Bohemians to Bobby Soxers.

Jessie Tarbox Beals. Couple standing near fountain in Greenwich Village. ca. 1915. Museum of the City of New York. 94.104.862

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Park Benches - Love is Everywhere.1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10347.11.

And if you don’t find anything to love about Valentine’s Day, these could be more your speed.

Advice to Girls About to Marry - get used to this language when you tell him you want a new hat. ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.582.

James Henderson (Firm). Single One, Married One - "Lucky Dog". ca. 1895. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.560.

Currier & Ives. "No One to Love Me." 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 56.300.603.

Photographing the Postcard Collection

Allyson photographing postcards.

Ever wonder how much work goes into digitizing a collection for view on our Collections Portal?  Here at MCNY, the digital team has been hard at work numbering, shooting, and cataloging our collection of 7,691 New York City postcards.   It took about 20 days of photography shooting 400 to 600 postcards each day.  After imaging, the files are sent to our catalogers who research information such as location, date, and publisher. The keywords they apply allow the images to be searchable in our database and online.

Our postcard collection ranges from the 1890s through the 1990s, with particular strength in the early 1900s, when a postcard craze swept the nation, as explained by the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City:

An accumulation of factors led to an explosion in the popularity of postcards during these years. The American middle class had grown much larger in size, and the excess money it had to spend on nonessential goods was enough to support a large industry […] Photography and printing technology had also advanced to a point that enabled high quality images to be produced in tremendous numbers and they were. Card dealers began to outnumber booksellers. Over 7 billion postcards were mailed worldwide in 1905, almost one billion in the United States alone; and this does not account for those that ended up in collections rather than the mailbox.

The images include popular tourist subjects such as aerial views of  lower Manhattan and major landmarks, but also incorporate some eccentric imagery and views outside of Manhattan,  like the three examples below.

Greetings from the Bronx, ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.1795.

Central Park Menagerie. Feeding a Snake, New York, 1905-1914. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.1588.

Kings County Jail, Raymond Street, ca. 1915. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.1823.

While most of these were purchased as traveler’s cards to be sent to family and friends back home, quite a few were actually sent within New York City  limits.  In an age before you could just send a quick text or email, postcards were a fast and informal way to get in touch with someone who did not yet own a telephone.

Capturing some of the postcards in a digital format proved challenging.  Most were the standard 3 1/2″ by 5″ but some were specialty fold out postcards. Here is an example of a particularly complicated one.  This was a folded paper postcard from the 1939 World’s Fair. When expanded and viewed through a hole in the front of the card, the viewer sees a three dimensional landscape.  Our photographers found that the best way to capture the view was to tie the postcard underneath the lens and allow it hang open while being photographed.

View captured through the lens. New York World's Fair, 1939. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.33.2119.

Front cover of the postcard - by looking through the cutout one can view the telescoping image.

Several other postcards include special fold-out sections that provide a view of the New York City skyline.

Irving Underhill (d. 1960). New York Skyline, 1900. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.3006.

As an added enticement to the consumer, postcard companies often hand applied tinseling or glitter to the views to enliven the image – often incongruously, as in this bedazzled depiction of Grant’s Tomb.

General U. S Grant Monument & Tomb, New York, ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.33.14.

Not every postcard showed exciting and interesting places such as Coney Island and the Empire State Building; here is a postcard showing the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.’s new women’s lunch room:

Lunch room, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.325.

One of our favorite postcards is this multiple choice “busy person’s correspondence card” showing the Empire State Building.

Empire State Building at Night, New York City, 1934-1940. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.3492.

We are in the process of uploading the postcard collection to the Portal. Look for it online in the next week or two.

The Age of Innocence?

Before I started cataloging postcards, I thought I had a fairly good idea of what was in store for me: numerous souvenir type views of the greatest hits of everything New York City. After cataloging nearly a thousand postcards, this does make up a vast majority of our collection, but what I definitely did not expect was being fascinated by melodramatic, turn-of-the-century  images of love and romance. In these postcards, the longing, confusion, and excitement of summer romances and relationship dramas are brilliantly encapsulated. 

Life Publishing Co. | Detroit Publishing Co. When the Hunting Season Opens. Charles Dana Gibson. 1900. X2011.34.583.

Life Publishing Co. | Detroit Publishing Co. The Dog: Here he has been hanging around us for a month, and we leave to-night. Charles Dana Gibson. 1893. X2011.34.578.

Summer love is not a new trend–vacations, beaches, warm weather sports, and girls in bathing suits have always held appeal. Many of these postcards are images originally drawn by Charles Dana Gibson, an illustrator for Life Magazine, who is credited for the creation of the “Gibson Girl” – the tall, gorgeous, corset-clad, bouffant-haired women who epitomized the ideal of beauty in the early parts of the 20th century. These images show summer love at its best, and the heartbreak that comes when Labor Day arrives.

Life Publishing Co. | Detroit Publishing Co. Here it is Christmas and they began saying good-bye in August. Charles Dana Gibson. 1901. X2011.34.581.

As a contrast to the summer loves of Gibson Girls are the slightly darker, both literally and figuratively, postcards by William Balfour Ker, who was also an illustrator for Life Magazine. From hesitation to making the first move, to what appears to be the beginning of an affair, these scenes make it clear that the beginning of the 20th century was just as scandalous as today.

Life Publishing Co. | Detroit Publishing Co. That Horrible Moment - when, having had the nerve to turn down the light, you find that you haven't the nerve to make the next move. William Balfour Ker. 1906. X2011.34.594.

Life Publishing Co. | Detroit Publishing Co. Another Monopoly. William Balfour Ker. 1899. X2011.34.569.